By Mary Stewart
A threatened native wildflower named Nelson’s checkermallow is repopulating open spaces on private farms and public lands thanks to the work of a local farmer who raised native plant seeds that became a companionable habitat for the wildflowers. Peter Kenagy is a North Albany farmer and an expert in growing all types of seeds—including native plant seeds. Kenagy is producing seed varieties critical to conservation in the rich silt loam soils of his 450-acre farm on the Willamette River. While he didn’t produce the Nelson’s checkermallow seed for this project, he did raise a variety of seeds that were important to the successful growth of the checkermallow.
Nelson’s checkermallow, Sidalcea nelsoniana, is a spiked perennial bearing pinkish-lavender flowers that typically bloom between late May and mid-July. The native wildflower has been listed as threatened by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) since 1993.
When the recovery plan for the native checkermallow was published, several natural resource entities took on the task to increase populations of the wildflower in the Willamette Valley. Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), based in Corvallis, led the effort and engaged partners including Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), USFWS, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and private landowners.
“The Nelson’s checkermallow is indigenous to the Willamette Valley from north of Monroe up to lower southwest Washington, says Peter Moore, Restoration Ecologist for IAE. “Our first step in restoration was to do weed control and bring in a plant community that was competitive but diverse,” says Melanie Gisler, Director of Habitat Restoration for IAE. “So, that is when we got involved in collecting genetically-diverse material from many different species to create habitats that were stable enough to introduce a threatened plant like checkermallow,” she adds. Among the many varieties of plants selected for the habitat were flowering forbs such as Oregon sunshine and slender cinquefoil, and graminoids such as tufted hairgrass, California oatgrass, one-sided sedge and poverty rush.
To produce the larger supplies of the native plant seed needed for the plant community; IAE made arrangements with the NRCS Corvallis Plant Materials Center (PMC) and several growers including farmer Peter Kenagy to grow out, clean and deliver the larger quantities of seed for native prairie habitat establishment. Kenagy had experience producing native seeds for City of Portland plant environments.
Producing specialty native seed takes meticulous management of farmland, inputs and equipment. “We would plant four rows of one type of seed plugs, then switch to another variety,” says Kenagy. The plants were inspected regularly in the field to ensure the variety wasn’t mixed with something undesirable. If an invasive plant appeared, the entire plot had to be plowed under. At harvest time, Kenagy made sure the varieties of seed stayed pure and did not mix with the next one harvested, “When changing seed varieties, the combine equipment has to be cleaned thoroughly before you move to a new variety,” he explains. Kenagy keeps a stable of the massive combines in his shed, so he doesn’t have to stop and take the time to clean the same machine during specialty seed harvest.
The native seeds are grown and cleaned right on Kenagy’s farm. He has set up a seed cleaning operation in a historic wooden barn close to the growing fields. The A.T. Ferrell Co. “Clipper” Super 29D seed cleaners are beautiful in their own way – made from a rich chestnut-colored wood. The cleaner, which was built in the 1950s rapidly shimmies large trays with tightly-woven screens that sift the seeds as they sort by size and separate the debris from the seeds.
“The Nelson’s checkermallow was selected for large scale recovery because it had good potential for delisting,” says Gisler. “We knew where the populations were, we knew how to collect the seed, it’s easy to propagate and it’s successful in the propagation site,” she explains.
In 2010, Gisler and Moore, took the seeds produced by Kenagy and other growers and established the habitat plant communities in 16 restoration sites in pre-determined recovery zones designated as Corvallis West and Salem West. Once the habitat was predominantly a native plant community, they planted out checkermallow seeds, plugs and rhizomes that were produced at PMC.
According to Moore, the colorful native is well on its way to a comeback. Initially, the plots were planted with five pounds of checkermallow seeds per acre. These seeds grew into plants, flowered, and produced their own seed. “At six sites alone, the population has blossomed to a combined 90,000 plants, more than meeting the objective of 40,000 plants for the two recovery zones.” The seed production fields exceeded the scientist’s expectations – two quarter acre plots at PMC produced 80 pounds of seed in the first year and 250 pounds last year. “We were shocked at how much seed was produced!” says Gisler. The results indicate that the seed production for native prairie species, as designed by IAE and grown by Kenagy and others was the ideal environment for success.
The impact of Peter Kenagy’s work will continue for years to come, as the prairie recovery zones serve as a growing site for the valuable seed, and as a source of food for native pollinators such as butterflies and bees. Chances are quite good that Nelson’s checkermallow will be delisted as it is used by conservation groups and naturally spreads to other prairies and wetlands in the Willamette Valley.
According to Melanie Gisler, Institute for Applied Ecology, work on native seed certification began prior to the Nelson's Checkermallow project. "OSU Extension's Seed Certification Specialist Barry Schrumpf helped to guide the process for certifying large scale seed collections in the Willamette Valley in 2005." Barry consulted with the Institute on how to document and track the seed and how to put the seed in production. "It was important for us to include seed certification to document the quality and source through testing," said Melanie. The crop inspection phase legitimizes the seed and then a non-biased third party takes a sample and brings it to OSU for the testing. "We can find out if there are noxious weeds and other inerts that we don't want in the seed," she adds.